George Bailey was standing on the bridge, staring sadly down at the icy water, when suddenly he saw a fat little man jump into the river. Without thinking, George plunged into the freezing water. The little fat man sputtered to the surface a few feet from George. The fat man floundered in the strong current, clutching an account ledger. George grabbed the collar of his overcoat and pulled him toward the river bank.
A few minutes later, the two men sat in the steamy warmth of the bridge tender’s cottage. “Uncle Billy, what were you trying to do?”
“George, after I lost the $8,000, I just couldn’t live with myself.”
“You old coot,” George muttered, “I’m the one with the life insurance policy. Besides, who do you think was going to run the building and loan? Eustice?”
The bridge tender spat tobacco juice into a cuspidor. “Say, George, just after you and Uncle Billy went swimming, a little guy named Clarence came looking for you.”
“That’s funny,” George grumbled, “I don’t know anyone named Clarence.”
“He said he was your guardian angel,” the bridge tender continued, “came here from heaven to save you.”
“That figures,” George said. “I get a guardian angel who shows up late.”
“Well, he said now he’ll never get his wings,” the bridge tender said with a sigh.
“Is your mouth bleeding, George?” Uncle Billy asked.
George absently wiped the side of his mouth. “No, that’s just Welch’s punch. Uncle Billy is that book dry yet?” Uncle Billy flipped through the Bailey Building and Loan ledger, “Why, yes it is.”
“Then let’s go to Martini’s and have a drink. Welch should be gone by now. It’s too bad I didn’t get a chance to tell him what I really think of his wife.”
The two men walked out into a heavy snowstorm. “Say, Uncle Billy, I wrecked my car on the way here. Where are you parked?”
“I didn’t drive, George. You see, I was out looking for my hat, when I suddenly noticed a string around my finger, reminding me to jump off the bridge.”
The Baileys walked up to George’s car, its fender crumpled against the trunk of an enormous oak. A bald man came running out of his house. “You idiot, see what you did to this tree?” he said, pointing at a pale gash. “Why this is one of the oldest trees in Baileysburg.” The man looked sharply at George and said, “Oh, it’s you Mr. Bailey. I didn’t recognize your car.”
“Th-that’s OK,” George replied, “But what did you call this town? I thought the name was Frostbite Falls or something.”
“It’s Baileysburg,” the man said indignantly, “I ought to know where I live.”
George got in and started the engine. “Don’t forget to slam that door, Uncle Billy.”
“You know, Georgie my boy, that cold water seems to have cleared my head.”
“Hmm,” George mused, “The only thing cold water did for me was make me deaf, so I couldn’t join the Army.”
“What I’m saying, George, is now I remember what happened to the $8,000. Potter took it.”
“Potter!” George exclaimed, “That miserable old skinflint. How could he …”
“I gave it to him, George,” Uncle Billy said, proud that he had finally remembered something.
The car slid to a stop and George began choking Uncle Billy. “You crazy old fool …”
“It, it was a mistake, Georgie, the money was inside a folded newspaper I handed him at the bank.”
“Hmm, and to think he was going to have me arrested,” George said bitterly, “We’re going to Potter’s right now. I don’t care if I have to take that money out of his miserable hide.”
A few blocks later, George stopped the car. “This is the address . . . what happened to that fancy house of his?” They were parked in front of a rundown Victorian with broken windows and a leaky roof. There was a crowd of people outside.
“Looks like we’ll have to stand in line to get our piece of Potter,” Uncle Billy said. The line extended out Potter’s front door and down the block. “I’m not waiting in any line,” George spat, “we’re getting what he owes us first.” The Baileys pushed their way through the crowd on the stairs. A large uniformed figure filled the doorway. “Where do you think you’re going?” the figure said with authority. “Oh, it’s you Mr. Bailey … hey, step aside, let these men through.”
“Bert, what’s all this Mr. Bailey stuff?” George asked. “Say, where’s Ernie? I haven’t seen you two apart since my wedding night.”
“Gee, I don’t know, Mr. Bailey. I hear he’s with that new guy in town, Grover.”
The Baileys entered the cramped foyer, Potter was sitting behind a worn old table, wearing overalls and a big smile. A basket brimming with money sat on the table. Violet was perched on Potter’s lap. She crinkled her nose, “Hi Georgie-porgie.”
“Hi yourself, Violet. Listen, Potter, these people are supposed to be at my house, giving me this money to replace the $8,000 you stole.”
“Now, George, ‘stole’ is a very strong word. Besides, this money is to pay for my operation. Violet and I are going to walk barefoot through the grass at Bailey’s Falls.”
“Oh,” George said sarcastically, “I thought you needed an operation for that boil on your neck.”
“Heh, heh, my boy, that boil’s gone and so are all my troubles. You see, I met a little man named Clarence today and he said he could arrange it so that I’ve never been born. Well, you know what a warped frustrated old man I was. I couldn’t resist the offer.”
George began to stutter. “B-but if you’ve never been born, then … anyway, Potter, it still means scandal and bankruptcy and prison if I don’t get that $8,000. George turned to the crowd. “Mr. Gower, if it wasn’t for me, you’d be doing a 20-year stretch for manslaughter.”
“So, you’ve been reminding me, Mr. Bailey, every time the rent’s due. I’m glad I slapped your sore ear.”
George turned to another man in line. “Harry, you would never have gone to college and met your father-in-law if it hadn’t been for me.”
“Sorry, big brother, but Potter needs the money more than you.”
“This is nonsense, George,” Potter interrupted. “No one’s going to arrest you. You own half this town. You see, without me, you Baileys did all right.”
“OK, Potter, but just where is this Clarence fellow? He came here to save me, you know.”
“He said he was going to Martini’s for a nightcap,” Potter replied.
“OK, Potter, I’m leaving but if I hear as much as a hee-haw from you, I’ll foreclose on this place.” On his way out, George stopped, pointed his finger at Violet and said, “And that goes for you, too!”
Back in the car, Uncle Billy said, “You know George, you used to be a pretty nice fellow. Maybe you should see this Clarence.”
“You’re darn right I’m going to see him. Why, he’ll be hearing train whistles and anchor chains by the time I’m through with him.”
Martini’s was crowded and noisy. A boogie-woogie piano was playing, accompanied by Nick on the cash register. “Hey, get me,” the bartender with the bow tie boasted, “I can play ‘Jingle Bells’ on this thing.”
Clarence sat at the bar celebrating with his second cup of flaming rum punch. George sat down on the stool next to him.
“Say, little buddy, you must be my guardian angel,” he said, putting his arm around Clarence’s shoulder.
“Oh dear, George Bailey. I recognize you from that movie I watched in heaven.”
George patted him on the shoulder. “Now Clarence, there’s no hard feelings. I’d just like a small favor.”
“Well, I don’t know, George. What would I do with two sets of wings?”
“All I’m asking Clarence is that you make things the way they were before. I don’t mind owing $8,000. I just can’t stand to see Potter happy,”
Clarence looked up at the ceiling. “What do I do now? Oh … uh, huh … all right,” he said, nodding. “George, it’s all arranged. Potter’s been born again.”
Clarence reached into his coat pocket. “And here’s two airline tickets for you and Mary,” he said with a smile.
George read the inscription on the envelope. It said, “From one frequent flier to another.”
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.